In 1962, the second year of his presidency, John F. Kennedy fixed his attention on an international economic crisis that in many ways resembled the problems President Reagan faces today. There was a lack of confidence in the dollar, the United States had a worsening balance-of-payments deficit, and high-priced American products were unable to crack European markets.
Kennedy was concerned, furthermore, that the recently formed European Economic Community, which was seeking to grow by bringing Britain into its common market, would present a major economic challenge to the United States, and wanted to create new markets for the struggling economies of Japan and the developing countries of the world.
The president's response was to introduce a sweeping trade bill, the centerpiece of his 1962 legislative program, that he called "the most important international piece of legislation affecting economics since the passage of the Marshall Plan." This free-trade initiative called for lower tariffs "so that all may benefit from a free flow of goods," Kennedy said.
Much of the legislation has been forgotten in the ensuing 25 years. But an enduring monument to the Kennedy trade bill remains in a small but elite band of specialists within the White House establishment that is now known by the ungainly title of "Office of the U.S. Trade Representative," or USTR for short.
USTR will celebrate its 25th anniversary Tuesday with a reception and the dedication of the conference room that has been the site of some of the United States' knottiest trade negotiations. The ceremonies will honor the late Christian A. Herter, a former secretary of state and governor of Massachusetts who was named by Kennedy as the first special representative for trade negotiations.
During the ceremonies, the new deputy U.S. trade representative, Alan Holmer, will take his oath of office.
The current trade representative, Clayton K. Yeutter, decided to honor Herter, a Republican appointed by a Democrat, to emphasize the generally bipartisan nature of the country's approach to trade problems over the past 25 years -- an approach that has been badly strained recently by record trade deficits run up under the Reagan administration, which has brought an increasingly partisan tone to the trade debate.
The special office was included in the Kennedy trade initiative at the insistence of former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Wilbur Mills, who wanted to take trade negotiating authority away from a State Department that Congress saw as being more interested in its foreign policy goals than in reaching agreements that would help American companies sell overseas.
John Rehm, the trade group's first general counsel and acting special trade representative in 1969, recalled that the State Department tried to fight the loss of its negotiating authority, but Mills made it a condition of bringing Kennedy's trade bill to the House floor. Rehm, who was in the department then, said it tried to limit the new agency's functions after the legislation passed. Rehm, now a lawyer specializing in trade issues, said that when he joined the new agency, he was considered a traitor by his former colleagues for working to expand its authority.
USTR still fights for influence in debates within the administration with the State and Defense departments, which often assert that the overall security relationship with a country such as Japan should take primacy over a trade dispute.
But its bureaucratic battles for survival in recent years have been more with the Commerce Department, whose secretary, the late Malcolm Baldrige, early in the administration proposed folding USTR's trade policy and negotiating functions within a new Department of International Trade and Industry modeled after Japan's Ministry of International Trade and Industry.
The clout of any special trade representative depends on his or her relationship with the president, and neither William E. Brock nor Yeutter -- the two men in this administration to hold that post -- have been able to forge the kind of ties with Reagan that other Cabinet members have. As a result, Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III has emerged as this administration's point man on trade, taking over the Canadian free trade talks during their critical final weeks and leading negotiations with Congress over the trade bill.
But probably no trade representative in the past 25 years has had the influence inside the White House that Robert S. Strauss, the consummate Texas politician, had with President Jimmy Carter. In congressional testimony, Strauss told how he threatened to resign soon after he was named if he was not included in the U.S. team going to the economic summit and how he would tell Carter to call other government leaders to get them in line on trade issues. Neither Brock nor Yeutter in this administration have been included in the economic summits.
The trade office started with 14 people and still is one of the smallest agencies in government, although it has grown to about 140. Even so, Meyer Radish, who worked in the Kennedy White House to help formulate the legislation that created the agency, believes USTR has become too big.
Despite its growth, USTR continues as a rather free-wheeling, nonbureaucratic outfit. At times of long trade negotiations, its offices in the historic Winder Building, the Army headquarters during the Civil War that stands across 17th Street from the Old Executive Office Building, are often littered with old pizza boxes, and office couches are used for catnaps by weary negotiators.
The office's casual air, however, was interrupted by former Florida governor Reubin Askew, a trade representative under Carter who instituted a dress code. A compulsively neat man, Askew was taken aback one day to find two of his chief deputies working -- one without a tie and the other with his jacket and shoes off. They both felt his displeasure, especially when Askew noted that the shoeless aide was wearing a mismatched pair of socks.